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Chinese soldiers

Reuters/Joe Chan/RTXP108.


by Richard Desjardins

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The recent celebration of the Chinese navy’s capabilities for its 60th anniversary is just the latest evidence of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) growing power. For observers of the Chinese military, the signs of this growing power have been visible for quite some time. When Deng Xiaoping ordered reforms to the Chinese military with rank cuts in the early 1980s, it was already apparent that drastic transformations were going to take place at a number of levels.

Naturally, the first country to take an interest in developments in the Chinese military was the United States. Not only was the U.S. more directly affected by China’s growing power, it also had the human and institutional resources to observe, record and analyze the development of the PLA’s transformations. Over the years, therefore, American researchers have developed expertise of an impressive breadth and depth on the Chinese military. They have also elicited support from the U.S. government for research and opportunities to interact with Chinese military personnel themselves in order to foster open dialogue between the two countries and gain a better knowledge of each country’s intentions.

A snapshot of Chinese military research in the West today reveals that virtually all of the research on the Chinese military is conducted in the United States. Little or no research is done elsewhere, at least in the public domain. Yet Western countries would do well to take an interest in the emergence of Chinese military power. The growing presence of the Chinese military in UN operations in Haiti, the Congo, and recently along the Somali coast, not to mention tensions surrounding the marine resources in the China Sea, require a better understanding of China’s intentions and the possibility that these intentions are in conflict with the interests of other countries in the region.

Although Canada is taking an interest in China, there is practically no indication in the public domain that this interest extends to the military. I am therefore offering a few tips and routes to explore so that the Canadian Forces can tackle the issues linked to the emergence of China in the military domain. I have also included an overview of available resources on the Chinese military. This report is based on years of actively observing; researching networks, institutions and websites; and identifying specialists and their areas of expertise. During the course of my research, I was pleasantly surprised by the large amount and superior quality of the work that has been done to better understand this burgeoning military force. Consequently, what follows is merely an introduction to the most important researchers and institutions.

As indicated above, research on the Chinese military is chiefly American. Consequently, the available literature is mostly in English. Very little of the research is published in French. However, whereas the research is often in English, the original sources are predominantly in Chinese. This poses a daunting challenge for Western researchers. Later on, I will discuss ways to partially circumvent this obstacle.

Areas of research: Institutes and expert groups

Annual conferences sponsored by U.S. research institutes act as a springboard to examining the Chinese military. The Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an institute of the U.S. Army War College, has organized annual conferences for a number of years now. The conferences, which are often held in the fall, are attended by experts from all the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces (Army, Air Force, Navy). A collection of contributions from the researchers is published the following spring in book form. These books are available free of charge on the SSI site (www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil). The topics cover the full range of fields of military interest. For example, the last book entitled Beyond the Strait: PLA Missions Other Than Taiwan includes topics such as the PLA’s expanding presence in UN missions, border security, counterterrorism, the PLA’s computer networks, the PLA’s space efforts, and the regional prospects for Chinese military missions in the South and East China Seas.

A newer institute is the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) founded at the U.S. Naval War College in October 2006. Unlike the SSI, the CMSI focuses primarily on the naval element of the Chinese military. The quality of its publications is exemplary. Like the SSI, the CMSI organizes annual conferences on the Chinese navy and publishes the results in book form. The first of the two volumes published to date examines the Chinese submarine fleet. The second volume, published last year, discusses the impact of energy needs in China (particularly oil) on modernization and naval missions. A third volume is slated for publication later this year. These books are published by the Naval Institute Press; they are not available for free but can be purchased. The Naval War College also publishes the Naval War College Review (four issues annually). From time to time, this review contains essays on the Chinese navy. It is available free on the college website (www.nwc.navy.mil/press/review/reviews.aspx).

Private expert groups, usually called think tanks, also produce high-quality work on the Chinese military. However, the topics covered are often strictly military in nature. In addition, their publications are less frequent than those of the above-mentioned military institutes.

The most well-known group is the RAND Corporation. Over the years, this group has produced in-depth studies on the Chinese military. For anyone looking to develop expertise on the Chinese military, RAND publications are necessary reading. These include such classics as The Military and Political Succession in China: Leadership, Institutions, Beliefs (1992) and Interpreting China's Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (2000).These studies are often available for free on the RAND Corporation website. The high quality and great accuracy of the information make RAND publications a key source of information on the Chinese military.

Another group that publishes important work on the Chinese military is the CNA Corporation. This work is often published through private publishers—for example, M.E. Sharpe for Civil-Military Relations in Today’s China: Swimming in a New Sea, a study on the links between the Communist Party and the State on one side and the military on the other. Some of the experts from the CNA Corporation are researchers with close ties to the U.S. military. The research covers the gamut of hot topics connected to the Chinese military.

There are also private foundations that regularly publish reports on Chinese society in general, focusing specifically on politicians, defence and the economy. As Chinese military expertise cannot be strictly limited to military matters, all researchers must also take an interest in China’s politics and economy. Aside from specialized journals on China, which are generally connected to universities, reports published by foundations are a good way to keep up with what is going on in China. The Jamestown Foundation publishes a bimonthly journal entitled China Brief (available free of charge at www.jamestown.org). China Brief covers current events, particularly politics, the military, foreign affairs, and sometimes the economy.

The Hoover Institution has a quarterly journal called China Leadership Monitor. The articles are generally very thorough and consistently highlight the economy, politics, the military, China–Taiwan relations and the Communist Party. These articles are available free of charge on its website (www.hoover.org/publications/clm).

China Security is a relatively new publication. Its essays often take the form of opinion pieces and are authored by American researchers, Chinese researchers, and sometimes public servants with ties to the U.S., Chinese or Taiwanese governments. The goal of this journal is to foster dialogue (www.chinasecurity.us). The articles are available free of charge.

Another important foundation for research on the Chinese military is the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). This organization publishes a biannual journal entitled Asia Policy. As its title indicates, the journal is about much more than just China. However, given China’s importance in Asia and the world, all of the topics covered in the journal are of interest for all experts on the Chinese military. The NBR also publishes an annual journal called Strategic Asia that covers national security issues in the region from the point of view of the United States (www.nbr.org).

Aside from these institutes and foundations, there are many academic journals on contemporary China. These journals cover a wide range of topics, including the PLA. Some of the most prestigious are as follows: The China Quarterly (Great Britain), The China Journal (Australia), The China Review (Hong Kong), Issues and Studies (Taiwan), Asian Survey (United States), Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), and Pacific Affairs (Canada). In French, a journal entitled Perspectives chinoises is published in Hong Kong. The journal Current History (United States) publishes a special edition on China every September.

In addition to these journals, there are other important publications that often feature significant or very influential essays, a patent example being the American magazine Foreign Affairs from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Very rarely does this magazine not include a significant article on international issues surrounding the rise of China. Similar journals include The National Interest and The Washington Quarterly. All of these journals tend to examine China from a U.S. standpoint.

The Chinese missile destroyer Qingdao

Reuters/Andrew Wong/RTRAX7V.

The Chinese missile destroyer Qingdao after an unprecedented voyage around the world in 2002.

Government institutions

U.S. government institutions are an important source of information on the development of the Chinese military. The reports they publish are often a good indication of the issues being focused on by the U.S. government in general and the Pentagon in particular.

Since its inception in 2000, the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission has become one of the most important sources of information on China in terms of national security in its broadest sense. The Commission is mandated by the U.S. Congress to produce an annual report identifying threats directed at the United States (www.uscc.gov/index.php). These reports are available free of charge on its website.

The Pentagon also publishes a biannual report on the Chinese military: “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.” The publication of this report is mandated by an act of Congress. This report is available free of charge on the Pentagon website and contains a wealth of information on the Chinese military machine, particularly the development of missiles (for the latest report, go to www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/China_Military_Power_Report_2009.pdf).


Institutes, expert groups and foundations would not be able to offer rich sources of information on China without the work of researchers. These researchers have developed expertise in increasingly specific fields. Although the work of researchers is sometimes featured in the publications of the above-mentioned institutions, that is not always the case. All informed experts must keep up to date with what certain specialists are publishing, as these specialists do not always publish via the institutions or in the publications mentioned above.

For the readers’ benefit, I will mention only the most prominent researchers and their areas of expertise. This list is by no means exhaustive. Nevertheless, it should give readers a good picture.


Bernard Cole (National War College), Andrew S. Erickson (Naval War College), Lyle J. Goldstein (Naval War College), Eric McVadon (retired), William S. Murray (Naval War College).

Air Force

John Wilson Lewis (Stanford University), Xue Litai (Stanford University).


Dennis Blasko (CNA Corporation), James Mulvenon (Defense Group Inc.), Andrew Scobell (Texas A&M University).

In addition to these experts, one person stands out in particular through his unparalleled contributions to the development of research on the Chinese military. David Shambaugh, professor at George Washington University, has initiated a number of research projects on China and has contributed to a variety of work on all elements of the Chinese armed forces. When he was editor of the British journal The China Quarterly, he published a special issue in June 1996—the first of its kind—on the Chinese military.


It goes without saying that the Internet is an important source of information about the Chinese military. However, the quality and the reliability of the information are sometimes lacking. I will mention just three sites:

  1. SinoDefence.com: This site was launched in 2002. It is run by volunteers and is based in the United Kingdom. The site is regularly updated and touches on all elements of the Chinese military (www.sinodefence.com).
  2. Chinese Military Power: This site contains a host of information on various topics of military interest. It also contains links to reports published by different organizations. Unfortunately, the site managers have not added anything new since April 2008 (www.comw.org/cmp/).
  3. Golden Lanterns: China Military and Security Database: This site provides a long list of sites that focus on various aspects of Chinese defence. Most of these sites are in English and/or Chinese (www.goldenlanterns.com/china-milsec_resources.html).

Chinese websites

The best way to learn more about the Chinese military is to go to the Chinese military sites themselves. For observers who want access to Chinese sources but do not speak the language, there are still PLA sites and Chinese news sites in English (and sometimes French). Here are just a few examples:

  1. Window on Chinese Armed Forces: english.pladaily.com.cn
  2. People’s Daily: english.peopledaily.com.cn
  3. China Daily: www.chinadaily.com.cn
  4. CCTV (State Television): english.cctv.com/01/index.shtml

Every two years, the Chinese government publishes a white paper on its military budget. The latest one is from 2008 (www.gov.cn/english/official/2009-01/20/content_1210227.htm). Although the information it omits is more revealing than the information it provides, this paper nevertheless gives an idea of the development of Chinese priorities.

Chinese J-20 stealth fighter


The Chinese J-20 ‘stealth fighter’, seen at Chengdu, Sichuan Province, 5 January 2011.


Expertise on the Chinese military requires several years of training both on the military itself and on the country’s history. The history of the PLA is intimately linked to that of the modern history of China. The Chinese attribute the fact that China is independent today to their military. I have not addressed the importance of the role of the Soviet Union in the Chinese civil war and the training of the PLA and Russia’s current role as weapons supplier. This is just one of the many subjects that one must know about in order to be well informed on all aspects of the PLA’s development.

Ideally, the Canadian military should start training personnel as soon as possible to be able to work comfortably in Chinese. Becoming proficient in the written and spoken language requires several years of intensive study. A number of Canadian universities have offered Chinese language programs for years now. Incidentally, there is an important distinction between the written language and the spoken language. Whereas written Chinese can be understood by speakers of all forms of Chinese, spoken Chinese has different varieties. It is therefore incorrect to say that a person speaks Chinese; it is necessary to be more specific and say that a person speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. The written language is the same across the board, but each spoken variety has its own unique pronunciation.

It is also important that members of the Canadian military establish a relationship of trust with their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese military publishes a significant amount of literature on different topics of military interest. Keeping abreast with what is being published in China on defence would enable the Canadian military to better discern the state of the Chinese military and its intentions. However, most of these publications are only available in Chinese. It is therefore crucial that the Canadian military train its members to be able to use this literature. Otherwise, they will constantly be at the mercy of our American allies, who already have a head start in this area.

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Richard Desjardins is a Canadian public servant. He holds a Master’s degree in Chinese politics.

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